Thursday, November 29, 2007

Love and hate

Notes from the classroom

One of my students said she loves me. I wonder if she meant it. Actually, to be more accurate, one of my former students said she loved me. To take even more of the bloom off the anecdote, it was certainly her “former” status that stimulated her declaration. It was like this, you see, as “Lisa” burst into the classroom:

“Oh, Dr. Z, I can't believe it! I can't believe it!”

“Believe what?” (But I was dissembling. I knew.)

“I really need this class! And you're such a great teacher!”

“Nice of you to say that, Lisa, but on what basis are you making that judgment? You haven't been here often enough to form an informed opinion.”

“Is that why you dropped me?”

“Of course. When I don't see a student for a few weeks, I assume she's lost interest in the class.”

“But I really need this class! Really!”

“It's traditional for students to attend the classes they really, really need. Right, Lisa?”

“Oh, Dr. Z, I'm so, so sorry, but you wouldn't believe all the complications I've had lately.”

She's probably right.

“Lisa, would you like to take our next exam with the class on Thursday?”

“Oh, Dr. Z, I love you!”

It's conceivable that she could do well on the exam and make it worthwhile to reinstate her in the class. It's also conceivable that aliens might kidnap her and make her the queen of their distant planet. Since it's an arithmetic class, and Lisa has trouble writing 6/10 in decimal notation, the odds might favor the Rigel VII coronation scenario.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Confessions of a blog whore

Hit me!

On Friday, November 23, 2007, the day after Thanksgiving, Site Meter got screwed up. Suddenly I was denied my regular fix of blog traffic data. I hadn't realized till then what an addict I was. On Monday afternoon, Site Meter was finally back. There was much rejoicing.

So what was the big deal? Halfway There is just a piddling little personal blog. It doesn't bring in any money (no PayPal contribution button or advertising) or any other goodies (no Amazon gift list link—maybe I should get me one of those). No, it's all about enjoying the traffic and browsing Site Meter's list of the geographical locations of my visitors. It's cool. Each new post brings a quick (albeit modest) surge of hit from people who have Halfway There picked up by their blog readers. How nice of them!

Of course, there is a natural consequence to my enjoyment of the passing parade of visitor: I can't resist pumping up the volume every so often. It's developed into a habit of leaving links to Halfway There in my comments on other blogs. Of course, I tell myself that the links are pertinent (they are!), but that's not saying much. After a couple of years, even my desultory posting rate has been enough to generate a few hundred items. That's a big enough collection to provide a suitable post for every occasion. Each time I add a comment to someone's blog, I can include a reference to some Halfway There post on a related topic. I noticed that I was starting to do it habitually. Overdoing it.

I'm not joining Blogwhores Anonymous (especially not if they include that nonsense about appealing to a “higher power”), but I probably should cut back a little. I won't quit cold turkey, of course, but the occasional link in comments should be okay. And every so often I submit something to Mike's Blog Round Up at Crooks and Liars (such as the one producing the big spike in my hit rate on November 19) or I pass along a link to PZ Myers at Pharyngula (who created the November 18 spike when he posted it at his site). I could never give up that kind of excitement. (Whee!)

Hey, maybe I'll go over to Site Meter now and see where my latest visitors came from!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Hole in the head

Just as we suspected

Today's installment of Pearls before Swine by Stephan Pastis offers a compelling explanation for an otherwise inexplicable contemporary phenomenon. Pig has been plagued by the rebellion of his brain, which has been fed up in recent weeks with Pig's chronic neglect of its intellectual nourishment. While Pig seems to function about as well without his brain as before, it could be a problem if he ever decides to start thinking again. Pig's brain explains that the problem is not Pig's alone.

Thirty-four percent? Where did Pastis get that number? And why does Goat say it explains a lot? My own brain has a theory. Look at the following list, paying special attention to the CNN and WNBC results. You know, I think Goat is right!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Poor reasoning

Do as I say, not as I do

No holiday is complete without a homily from the paterfamilias. The target of each lesson is the unrepentantly liberal eldest son. Me. Hope springs eternal in Dad's breast, refusing to abandon his efforts to get me to appreciate the rigorously logical pronouncements of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Fox News. You almost have to admire that kind of persistence in the face of constant disappointment.

It's almost evolved into a ritual. My usual practice is to depart from the family's Central California farm as early as I can manage the morning after the holiday gathering. Mom & Dad have adapted by having breakfast with me at a favorite restaurant next to Highway 99 (my escape route to the north). We chit-chat over bacon and eggs until Dad decides it's time for his lecture.

“You're probably too young to remember the Johnson administration.”

“Dad, I was a teenager during Johnson's Great Society.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, he had this idea that he was going to end poverty.”

“I remember the war on poverty. Johnson would be remembered more kindly today for things like that if it hadn't been for the Vietnam mess.”

“All his war on poverty did was make more people dependent on government. They just want handouts.”

Like farm subsidies? Dairy price supports? Irrigation water from publicly funded dams and canal systems? No, I didn't actually say any of that. Dad wouldn't have appreciated it.

“When you see poor people on TV complaining about their lives, they're always living in a mess. They have no personal pride. You can tell they're just lazy.”

Dad thrives on context-free anecdotes and the infallibility of his personal observations. He's the sort of person who points at an accused criminal on the television and declares, “You can tell he did it!” Only the pope's infallibility exceeds Dad's.

For some reason, Dad doesn't recall (or never knew) that over 20% of Americans lived below the poverty line when John F. Kennedy took office in 1961. After his successor's war on poverty, it had dropped to about 12%. While Dad might disagree, I think Johnson deserves some credit for that.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Propositioned at school

Playing the game

During my stint on the staff of the California legislature, my boss used to lament the sorry state of the initiative process. It had, he said, fallen into the clutches of political operatives. They would, for a suitably large fee, collect the signatures necessary to place on the ballot any scheme favored by big-buck special interests. The California state lottery was enacted by a ballot initiative sponsored by Scientific Games (which later snagged the lucrative contract to run it). A similar story is true of the notorious property tax “reform” scheme known as Proposition 13 (which richly rewarded the commercial property owners who backed it). Operatives for the Republican Party are currently trying to get the voters to approve a proposal to siphon off presidential electoral votes from the statewide winner and award them to the runner-up (who is almost always the Republican in California general elections). The initiative process has been transformed from a means to advance populist grassroots political movements to a tool in the hands of “astroturf” specialists.

In particular, my boss regretted the way that government-by-initiative limited the ability of the legislature and governor to address the state's problems. With more and more policies being specified by special-interest rules and fund allocations, less and less was under the discretionary control of the state's elected officials. In the resulting vicious circle, legislative shortcomings are magnified by the limitations under which they operate, the public gets more irate at the state government's deficiencies, more initiatives get circulated and enacted into law by popular vote, and matters continue to deteriorate.

Now Proposition 92 comes along. The glossy fliers in its favor have begun to appear in my mail box, courtesy of my presence on union mailing lists and my occupation as a community college faculty member. As an initiative skeptic who tends to look askance at such campaigns (who's behind it? is it for real? is it a scam?), I naturally poke around in the details for a while before deciding which way to go. The evidence in this case is abundantly clear: Proposition 92 is a classic example of special-interest legislation. Its provisions are designed to protect and advance the priorities of a particular segment of the California electorate. My segment.

If enacted, Proposition 92 would direct more state funding toward K-12 schools and community colleges. Since it contains no revenue-generating provisions (no taxes!), Proposition 92's claim on education dollars would naturally come at the expense of the other major players, the California State University and the University of California. Quite naturally, therefore, the CSU and UC have announced their formal opposition to Proposition 92.

Although my old boss would probably shake his head and chide me gently for my decision, I expect to vote for Proposition 92. I have to decide if it is just selfish self-interest that motivates me (the usual criticism I make of proponents of other interest-group initiatives) or whether I can credibly make a case for the proposition. After all, this is the game that everyone plays in California. Community colleges have long refrained from going this route, but when everyone else is grabbing goodies at the dinner table, how long do you insist on starving before you reach out yourself?

I'm not keen on this kind of reasoning, but a hardscrabble fight for survival is what occurs in the absence of leadership from Sacramento. The K-14 cohort has a modicum of protection from Proposition 98, which was passed by the voters in 1988. It contains an allocation scheme for the state education funds apportioned to public elementary schools, high schools, and community colleges. The provisions of Proposition 98 stipulate that 10.9% of the budgeted monies are to go to the community colleges. The legislature, however, has seen fit to depart from that formula: It usually gives the colleges less. The Legislative Analyst's Office, which generally decries “autopilot budgeting,” has advised the governor and legislature to respect the community college mandate in Proposition 98, but that advice had fallen on deaf ears. The result? An effort like Proposition 92 to strengthen the hand of the community college system.

Grasping for student dollars

A constant refrain from analysts of education policy is that California community colleges need to charge higher tuition. As they correctly observe, the current rate of $20 per unit is the lowest in the nation, resulting in a total of $640 for two full-time semesters of 16 units each. The national average is closer to $2000. The usual argument is that increasing fees to the national average would bring a flood of new revenue to the community colleges but would not slam the door on student enrollment, since the higher fees would make our students eligible for such federal assistance programs as Pell grants, thus offsetting the higher costs.

This is an argument that greatly exasperates me. Student enrollment in our system is very sensitive to changes in fees. Many of our students are the first people in their families to enroll in college. They see the fee system as the sticker price on the education they want. The various cash-back, mail-in rebate gimmicks you see in retail outlets are the last things our students need to deal with as they make their first tentative steps into higher education. Raising fees will keep potential students from ever setting foot on campus, so they'll never even discover that they can file stacks of requests for waivers and grants. The more complicated the system, the less attractive it is for potential first-time college students. Proposition 92 flies in the face of the conventional wisdom by rolling back fees to $15 per unit. Good!

I despair that this point will ever be grasped by those who keep demanding higher student fees. The people with sharp pencils can prove a million different ways that students can afford the higher fees, but sticker-shock and the need to jump through more hoops will keep too many of them away. Pay attention!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Countdown to freedom

My BFF Laura

I don't know if the president is aware of this, but the First Lady has written to me again. This week she wants to offer me a special 2008 calendar.
As a strong supporter of our President and our Party, I wanted to make sure you had the first opportunity to have an official 2008 RNC calendar featuring President Bush.
At first, I thought she was referring to me as a “strong supporter of our President.” Given my actual opinion of the man in the White House, this would present an awkward situation. Upon reflection, however, I was relieved to note that a former teacher and librarian like Laura would never misplace a modifier. The opening clause clearly refers to her: “As a strong supporter of our President and our Party, I wanted to make sure...” See? Now it makes sense! As an enthusiastic supporter of her spouse, the First Lady is reaching out to the belligerently disaffected. To consider me a stalwart Bush backer would imply that Laura is as stupid and misinformed as her husband, which seems all but impossible.

Besides, I've never been a member of what the First Lady refers to as “our Party.”

In any case, Laura is really missing a good bet with her offer of a 2008 calendar. If it only had a nice countdown feature (“Only xxx days remaining in the Bush administration”), the RNC calendar would appeal to approximately two-thirds of the American electorate. (Is it January 20, 2009, yet?)


Damn! I just noticed that Laura is also sending her billets doux to other people, not just me! Outrageous!

And I thought we had something special, just the two of us.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lies for Xmas

Give the miracle of creation!

The mail brought a wonderful gift idea from Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. He's worried that I might be puzzled about what to get my closest friends and family members for Christmas. Ham has the perfect solution.
Give a Creation Museum membership, and you'll be giving yourself or your loved ones a gift that will last well beyond the season.
That's the ticket! I can give my nieces and nephews unlimited admission to the Creation Museum, one of the pre-eminent collections of cracked-brain pseudoscientific misconceptions in the known universe.

Thanks, Ken, but I think I'll pass.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thinking you're thinking

Young man versus old man

The San Francisco Chronicle saw fit this weekend to provide its dwindling pool of readers with some words of wisdom from Dinesh D'Souza. Interesting choice. D'Souza is busy drumming up sales for his new book, What's So Great About Christianity?, just published by Regnery, a pre-eminent source of right-wing blather. D'Souza should feel right at home.

D'Souza has spotted an opportunity to take advantage of the recent higher profile of atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. He's girded his loins and joined the faithful's counterattack against the God doubters. D'Souza assures us in his newspaper article that we are ensouled creatures, not godless products of a mechanistic universe. How does he know this? It's because D'Souza can make a mess whenever he feels like it!
[I]s the long-standing human belief in the soul a fiction? We can answer this question by examining the issue of free will. Let me illustrate. I am sitting at my computer with a cup of coffee on my desk. I can reach over and take a sip if I choose; I can knock the coffee mug onto the carpet if I choose; I can just leave the cup alone and let the coffee get cold. Now I ask: Is there anything in the laws of physics that forces me do any of these things? Obviously not. In Milton Friedman's phrase, I am “free to choose.”

Perhaps I could believe this argument if I chose to do so, but I find that I can't. That's perplexing. Even the quote from St. Milton of Friedman doesn't persuade me.

Although I haven't read D'Souza's book-length defense of Christianity, the piece in the Chronicle neither raises my hopes nor piques my curiosity. The author wants us to believe that our rational minds must be more than the operation of neurons. Unfortunately, his argument merely displaces the discussion from rational thought to free will. If complex networks of neurons permit us to think, why shouldn't these networks permit us to make choices, too? How did the notion of a soul get wedged into that?

The book flap for What's So Great About Christianity reportedly sports the following teaser:
  • Why Christianity explains what modern science tells us about the universe and our origins—that matter was created out of nothing, that light preceded the sun—better than atheism does
  • How Christianity created the framework for modern science, so that Christianity and science are not irreconcilable, but science and atheism might be
  • Why the alleged sins of Christianity—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Galileo affair (“an atheist's fable”)—are vastly overblown
  • Why atheist regimes are responsible for the greatest mass murders of history
  • Why evolution does not threaten Christian belief, but actually supports the “argument from design”
  • Why atheists fear the Big Bang theory and the “anthropic principle” of the universe, which are keystones of modern astronomy and physics
  • How Christianity explains consciousness and free will, which atheists have to deny
  • Why ultimately you can't have Western civilization—and all we value from it—without the Christianity that gave it birth.
Provocative, enlightening, a twenty-first-century successor to C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity is the perfect book for the seeker, the skeptic, and the believer who wants to defend his faith.

Yeah, right. Dinesh is in the same league as C. S. Lewis. Tell me another one. D'Souza is just another apologist for creationism and its bastard offspring, intelligent design.

Don't get me wrong: I do certainly believe that Dinesh D'Souza is one of the greatest intellects to be found in the current stable of right-wing polemicists. That's seriously sad, isn't it?

I wonder if D'Souza has read any of Mark Twain's thoughts on free will. Twain's famous essay What is Man? is in the form of a dialog between a Young Man and an Old Man. The entire text is available on-line from the Gutenberg Project, from which I took this excerpt:
Y.M. You have arrived at man, now?

O.M. Yes. Man the machine—man the impersonal engine. Whatsoever a man is, is due to his make, and to the influences brought to bear upon it by his heredities, his habitat, his associations. He is moved, directed, COMMANDED, by exterior influences—solely. He originates nothing, not even a thought.

Y.M. Oh, come! Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?

O.M. It is a quite natural opinion—indeed an inevitable opinion—but you did not create the materials out of which it is formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. Personally you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of putting the borrowed materials together. That was done automatically—by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery's construction. And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have not even any command over it.

Y.M. This is too much. You think I could have formed no opinion but that one?

O.M. Spontaneously? No. And you did not form that one; your machinery did it for you—automatically and instantly, without reflection or the need of it.

Y.M. Suppose I had reflected? How then?

O.M. Suppose you try?

Y.M. (After a quarter of an hour.) I have reflected.

O.M. You mean you have tried to change your opinion—as an experiment?

Y.M. Yes.

O.M. With success?

Y.M. No. It remains the same; it is impossible to change it.

O.M. I am sorry, but you see, yourself, that your mind is merely a machine, nothing more. You have no command over it, it has no command over itself—it is worked solely from the outside. That is the law of its make; it is the law of all machines.

I think I'll read more Mark Twain and less Dinesh D'Souza. Not, of course, that I have any choice in the matter!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Broken blossoms

Too little, too late

The fellow on the phone wanted to interrupt my class, but he didn't want to be rude about it:

“Hi, Dr. Z. My wife is in your math class later this morning and I want to come by and give her some flowers, but I don't want to be disrespectful so I thought I'd ask your permission first.”

“Well, that's very considerate of you. What's the occasion?”

“It's our six-month anniversary.”

“What's your wife's name?”


“Okay. I don't mind, but I'd prefer that you not interrupt the quiz that I'm giving during the first part of class.”

“How about half an hour into class?”

“Yeah, that would work fine. I'll see you then.”


Later that morning I gathered up my stuff and left the office for the classroom. I administered the quiz. Then the quiz problems went up on the board and we worked through each one carefully. Matters proceeded smoothly.

At about the half hour mark, a young man with a bouquet of red roses slipped in through the open door in the rear of the classroom. He crept up behind Dawn and fell to one knee. She didn't notice the murmuring that began to ripple through the back rows of the classroom. I decided to help out.

“Dawn, I think this would be a good time for you to turn around and look behind you.”

Her eyebrows went up, but she began to twist around in her seat. Her husband's presence startled her, but he wished her a happy anniversary and presented her with the flowers. The class was giddy with amusement, but Dawn did not seem to share its reaction. As a student of human behavior, I thought that Dawn was probably one of those people who prefer not to be the center of attention or to have a big fuss made over them. (Actually, I saw this on a recent episode of Reaper.) The class applauded cheerfully as Dawn's husband slipped back out of the room. I turned back to the board and resumed the day's lesson.

At the end of class, Dawn came up to talk to me.

“Dr. Z, I won't be able to attend our next class session.”

My lightning-quick mind guessed that she and her husband probably had some kind of mini-vacation planned, but I refrained from saying anything.

“Thanks for letting me know in advance, Dawn. I'm sorry you're going to miss class.”

“Yeah, me, too, but I have an appointment to file divorce papers.”

I probably looked quite startled for a moment.

“I'm very sorry to hear that, Dawn. Perhaps today's roses were a sign from your husband that he'd like a reconciliation.”

She grimaced a bit.

“If that's the case, he should have started a lot sooner.”

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Playing hooky

Report for work!

The best of my community college students are as good as any University of California student I've ever taught. But the worst of them... Ah, those poor kids! They aren't even real students.

That is, they have no idea what their role is, or what they're supposed to do. Some of them appear to fancy themselves empty vessels into which the teachers will pour knowledge. They are passive receptacles for learning. It has not occurred to them that they have any responsibility for their own education. When they fail, it's because the teacher was no good.


I have one of these students in my calculus class. He attends intermittently, flunks any quiz I happen to be giving on those days he appears, and then vanishes for another interval of recuperation from the stress of having deigned to come to school. I have a large group of such students in my arithmetic class. I see them so rarely that I have difficulty remembering their names. They like to arrive late and leave early. Class is such an imposition!

As someone who fancies himself a reasonably good teacher, I sometimes imagine that I could get through to them if only my classes were smaller and I could focus more attention on the individuals, but I'm probably wrong about that. How do I penetrate the armor of their passivity when they adamantly refuse to absorb the simplest requirements of the course? Show up! Do the homework! Ask questions when you're stuck! I have, of course, told them these things. Several times.

Most of my students have to work at least part time. I therefore hit upon the clever idea of likening the class to a job. If you don't show up for work, you get fired. If you don't show up for class, you get flunked. If you're sick or have an emergency, you call your boss to explain why you're not at work. If you're sick or have an emergency, you call your teacher to explain why you're not at school. I tell them (and write in the syllabus) that if they can't be troubled to inform their teacher promptly when they miss class, then I can't be troubled to give them makeup quizzes or exams. It doesn't work. At least, it doesn't work for several of the more recalcitrant students. These people wander casually into the classroom after an absence of a week or more and ask when they can make up the work they missed. They are, of course, quite outraged when I tell them I don't give makeups to those who simply vanish without a reason.

Another manifestation of the non-student student is their penchant for disrespecting substitute instructors. I recently was prevented from teaching a session of my arithmetic class because I had a conflicting meeting with an important campus committee. I sedulously avoid such conflicts, but there was no way around this one. I arranged with a colleague to have her cover the class for me. When students spotted someone other than Dr. Z at the front of the classroom, several promptly decamped. Some stayed only long enough to take the quiz that is usually given at the start of each period. These students walked up to the front of the room to hand in their quizzes and continued right out through the door.

My colleague felt thoroughly demeaned and slighted by their behavior. It wasn't anything personal, I'm sure. The students just saw an excuse to cut class (“Hey, my teacher isn't here!”) and off they ran. They'll whine, of course, when I hold them responsible for the material presented by my substitute.

I'd really like to teach these students some math, but first I have to figure out how to persuade them they're actually students. It's their most important lesson, and I haven't figured out how to pour it into their heads. And they're not learning it on their own.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Do a good deed

May the best blog win

The weird on-line comic strip xkcd is in the running for a 2007 Weblog Award in the Best Comic Strip contest. As of this writing, xkcd is running neck and neck with a remarkably humorless right-wing strip (I know, I know: that's loaded with redundancy). Go do a good deed and click xkcd's button on the Best Comic Strip voting site. In fact, go do it every day. (You can vote every 24 hours.)

And after you've done your good deed of voting for xkcd, please hop over to the Funniest Blog category to show some love for Sadly, No!. It was breezing along with a wide and well-deserved lead until it became the target of a concerted attack by the minions of Free Republic, all stirred up by a rival blogger who finds Sadly, No! too left-wing and unpatriotic (“a VILE leftwing sacreligious site”—yeah, right-wingers don't spell so good) for his tastes (and wants the votes to go to his own unfunny wingnut site). The assault has been working as the bilious Freepers pour their votes into the Funniest Blog poll. Go strike a blow for goodness and decency with a vote for Sadly, No!!